I’m going to get a little autobiographical here. Consider yourself warned.
I used to haunt the Post Office nearly every day. That is to say, I would check the PO box dedicated to writing correspondence, submissions, etc., every single day, save only holidays. By any reasonable standard, it was obsessive and overkill. Considering the usual number of stories I had in circulation and the number of available markets, two, three times a week at most would have been plenty. Of course in my head I knew that at the time, but it didn’t stop me. Obsession and I were old friends. I’d often said that, if I didn’t have obsession, I wouldn’t have any discipline at all. It got the words out, the stories written. Now I actually do check the PO box once or twice a week, but of course these days I’ve switched my obsessive focus to email because that’s where the action is. Most submissions and acceptances and rejections, even contracts are arriving by email, and the Post Office lost its…well, I won’t say “luster.” It was the Post Office. It never had luster. Say rather its focus and attraction for me. Gone now. I do not really miss those daily trips to the Post Office.
Book stores, on the other hand…well, here’s where I start to worry a bit. My obsession with the PO was mirrored in my interest in book stores. I’ve been a reader all my life, but in the very small Mississippi town I grew up in, there weren’t many ways to satisfy that urge. There was no library except a bookmobile that came once a week. The magazine/comics rack at the local gas station was pretty much all there was. I suppose you’ve heard those stories about people who grew up deprived during the Depression and turn into hoarders, unable to get rid of anything? It’s the same principle. By the time I went off to college I was as keen on libraries and bookshops as I later became on the Post Office. But by then it wasn’t just making up for lost time, but rather it was the result of, for want of a better term, a “Seminal Event.”
I fought the idea of being a writer all through high school, but during college I changed my mind. I read Lord of the Rings and The Earthsea Trilogy in rapid succession. Not that I wanted to imitate either Le Guin or Tolkien—even then I knew that was a dumb idea. More along the lines of “If this is what storytelling can do, then I want in.” By this time I had already written my first few stories, but hadn’t a clue what I was supposed to do with them. That changed in my Junior year in college. I didn’t have a summer job lined up, so I was staying with my Mom, who at that time had an apartment in Meridian, about twenty miles from where I grew up. It wasn’t (and isn’t) a huge city, but by my standards it might as well have been New York. I didn’t have a car or a lot of money, so there wasn’t much to do except read. The closest place to get something to read for not a lot of money was a place called Brown’s Newsstand about twelve blocks away.
The name was misleading; it wasn’t a simple newsstand but an actual shop, small but well-stocked. When you walked in the door, the smell of pulp paper hit you in the face. I learned to love that smell. There were books of course, even a fair selection of sf/fantasy. Yet what struck me the first time I ever went there was something I’d never seen before—a real, dedicated fantasy magazine. It was called Fantastic Stories. The May, 1976 edition. I still have it. “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” therein was my first exposure to the work of George R.R. Martin, but that wasn’t the paradigm changer. No, that was when I stumbled across this bit—the editor’s name, Ted White. And an address for submissions.
Submissions? As in “send us stories”? Seriously?
Okay, Let’s get something straight right now–I don’t claim to know a lot, but back then I didn’t know anything. Nada. Bupkis. I had no clue that there were actual magazines, that needed stories, needed them so badly that they would be willing to look at the work of anyone who cared to try. Don’t ask me how I thought books and magazines got published. It was some mysterious, unfathomable process so far as I could tell. A lot of it still is, but this? This was my road to Damascus, my lightning bolt of Enlightenment. While I never appeared in Fantastic, I did finally sell a story to White’s successor, Elinor Mavor. Only the magazine ended before it was published, and that’s why my first story appeared in its sister magazine, Amazing Stories. From there, I’m afraid, my fascination with bookstores, books, the whole biblio-fantastic universe only got worse. The first time I ever walked into a bookstore and found a magazine with my name on the ToC? Words can’t even describe it. So it went.
Until it didn’t. This is the part that worries me. I’m still writing. I still have plans, goals, milestones I want to reach, work I want and have to do. None of that has changed. But I haven’t been inside a brick and mortar bookstore in over two months. Yeah, yeah. We all know the publishing paradigm is in transition yet again. Sure, the Post Office no longer matters as much as it did. Realms of Fantasy was nearly the last of my markets that still took paper subs, and now it’s gone. These days you can do everything you need to do without the PO, and as I’ve already said, I don’t miss it. Change happens. But I never expected the same thing to happen to bookstores, or my relationship to them. I just didn’t.
Yes, I know bookstores aren’t going away completely. There are too many bibliophiles in love with the physical printed book to let that happen anytime soon. The indie bookstore is even making something of a comeback, filling niches abandoned by the tottering chains. I’m glad to see that, but it’s not the point. I used to need to go into a bookstore at least once a week, more if I got the chance. I called it “getting my book fix.” It grounded me. It reminded me of one of the reasons I was in the game. Now it no longer does that for me, and my goals have less and less to do with it. I no longer need that fix. And I’m finding that physical bookstores don’t really matter that much to me anymore. That feeling is real, and it scares the living hell out of me.
No matter how I consider that fact, as a matter unto itself or in light of changing venues and goals, it just seems wrong, right down to the core of my being. I wonder if there will ever come a time when that’s no longer the case. I think there might be. And that’s more than a little scary too.